On my side of the political map, the word “Zionist” is, at the very least, problematic. I’m an American-Israeli peacenik.
I’ve supported a two-state solution since the first intifada, and have made a minor career out of criticizing successive Israeli governments and their American enablers. I’ve gotten threatening phone calls, and certain upstanding Jews have simply stopped speaking to me.
I am, in short, the kind of Jew who finds herself in daily communication with folks who use “Zionist” as a synonym for all manner of nasty things—and they tend to expect me to, if not agree with them, at least disavow the –ism.
And just about every day I check in with my gut, and—yep: Still a Zionist.
When nationalism first came into vogue in the late 19th century, Jews had long shared a language, a culture, and a beloved land. The fact that we hadn’t lived on that land for centuries wasn't a choice. We’d been brutally thrown off it and hounded across the globe in a rolling genocide that ultimately failed. My people prayed to return home three times a day, in a language and within a cultural heritage that spanned centuries. If that doesn’t constitute the building blocks of the modern construct we know as “nationalism,” I don’t know what does.
If I support and advocate for Palestinian nationalism (and I do), how can I deny my people ours? If I believe that Israel has no right to tell the Palestinians to what they may aspire (and I do), how can I accept that others have the right to tell me and mine?
I have questions about nationalism. Big questions. Indeed, I suspect nationalism is a stage in human development and that we may one day achieve something better. But that day is not yet here.
And despite what you might have heard, that’s all Zionism is: nationalism. “Zionist” doesn’t mean “fascist,” or an “imperialist,” or “running dog.” It doesn’t even mean “Israeli.” It means, very simply, “Jewish nationalist.”
I believe that if we would work toward tikkun olam, repairing the world, we have a duty to use language to communicate the truth, not bend and mold our words to serve political ends. There is simply no room for the viciousness and vitriol (and often barely-veiled anti-Semitism) that pass for a definition of Zionism among many alongside whom I fight for Palestinian rights.
I have no argument with those who reject nationalism, and thus reject Zionism, or with Jews who find the weight attached to that word to be too heavy to bear anymore.
But unless and until I’m convinced that nationalism is no longer the path we must trod for the foreseeable future, unless and until I’m convinced that Israelis and Palestinians alike are willing and able to give up the dreams of decades and centuries and throw in their lot with each other—I’ll be a Zionist.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.